Living Faith’s Daring

A Sermon by Revd Richard Carter

Readings for this Service: Luke 1-11, 16-20

All the way through the Gospels one of Jesus’ constant refrains is “Do not be afraid.”

These words seem to be directly addressed to our times. For while we live in a nation of relative wealth and plenty, we also live in a time it seems of anxiety and fear. Every age has its own fears and threats but let’s just name some of ours: the fear that global warming destroying our planet; the fear that the National Health System cannot cope and is failing; the fear of knife crime and violence; the fear that housing is becoming unaffordable; the fear that there will be no one to care for us in our old age; the fear that our children will not receive a good education; the fear of immigration; the fear of poverty and homelessness; the fear of sexual offenders; the fear of obesity and eating the right foods;  the fear of cancer; the fear of employment; the fear of debt; the fear of other nations like Russia or Iran;  the fear of terrorism; the fear of Brexit or Remain; the fear of political division. Turn on the news any night of the week and you will hear a litany of those fears being endlessly discussed and expounded by people from all sides of the political spectrum. Fear is of course often born of love- because we love we want to protect. The important thing about fear is that it alerts us and forces us to address the danger and bring about safety. But we all have noticed that sometimes fear and anxiety can have the opposite effect. Rather than addressing the issue fear makes us retreat from it, put up defences, hope it will go away by itself, or blame someone else for our fear or most dangerously create scape-goats. This is well known by those skilled at persuasion and winning influence and power. In times of hardship and austerity the politics of blame grows. In both sides of the political debate in this country at this time, we will hear politicians deliberately using these fears to advance their own case, indeed even the two potential leaders within the same party are creating a dialogue of fear about the consequences of their rival gaining power. How frightening is that?

I wonder what effect this fear has on a personal level. One of our basic instincts is the need for status or wealth or property in order to defend ourselves from vulnerability. When I was young there seemed to be a plentiful supply of council house accommodation or affordable ways of renting property- now there is fear of not being able to buy your own property, or getting onto the housing ladder. For someone of my age who has never owned a house there is now no chance. And as I look around at my peers I begin to feel that fear. And of course market forces are good at exploiting our fears- they play on the theme that to be is to have-and the need to have the best , to possess your own, beautiful home, garden, furniture, the latest phone or computer or car, or design of kitchen, or consumer product. The belief that this will make our lives better or safer or happier that somehow this will take away, or defend us from your fears. So alongside our fears there is also a wanting.  Irish theologian David Ford writes about the way our lives are shaped by “overwhelmings,” the fear of the things that we imagine will defeat us. In fact a lot of the time we may spend our time worrying about things that never happen. Now there are of course wise ways of dealing with fears but also defensive ways which seem inadequate like stocking up your larder with tins of peas and baked beans because you fear Brexit. Similarly ignoring the fear like continuing to party while the ship sinks. It is here that our faith teaches us. None of us can command ourselves to feel less fear but as Christians what we can do is to locate our fears and vulnerabilities within a larger and greater story- the story that is God’s story and a story that is ultimately one of hope and resurrection rather than tragic futility.

I was talking to someone recently who was lamenting his life- his failure to own a home, or have any wealth, his failure to have found any real security, or even a job that was fulfilling and could make full use of his talents, his failure in his eyes to be all in all self-sufficient. Yet as I listened to him, while I could acknowledge the truth in what he was saying, I could also see a different truth. For this man who stood before me lamenting his life, was kind and generous, spirit filled, brilliant in social interaction, energetic and motivated- what was more he was full of joy in his Christian faith and gratitude for that faith. He seemed to me to be someone at the beginning of new life. There was thus two stories at work in his life- the judgment he felt from the world- but also the story of the life of Christ. And to me it was the second story that was his life force- the story of the person that with God’s grace he could become. Jesus taught his disciples that there was no way of following the kingdom of God without being willing to stake their life on it. That is basic to our becoming. Abundance of life and at the same time immersion in struggle are inseparable. Only the foolish leader is blind to his own vulnerability. Ultimately only by facing death itself, our most primal fear, can we embrace the wonder of life. “All you say maybe true” I said to my friend ‘But perhaps you do not see what I see” “What is that?” he asked. “God at work in you.” I replied “God’s possibility in all that you are.” The catholic Theologian Von Balthasar wrote: “Only a Christian who does not allow himself to be infected by modern humanities neurotic anxiety has the hope of exercising Christian influence in our time. He will not haughtily turn away from the anxieties of others  but will show them how to extricate themselves from the fruitless withdrawal into themselves and will point out the ways they can step out into the open, into faith’s daring”  I wonder how we as Christians and we as a church can live not defensively or territorially but live faith’s daring.

I was aware yesterday as I walked with Christians at Pride how a sea change can take place when people are no longer defined by their secrets or their feelings of shame and fear but encouraged by the prophets and those who have courageously fought for justice, to discover collectively the courage to live their story with generosity and with pride- to live loves daring. It is this that changes not just attitudes but the story itself. They, as Sam Wells has expressed it, are no longer defined by their scarcity but by the abundance. In the faces of the crowds which gathered I saw the face of joy and hope. It seemed even among some of those who may previously have had attitudes of prejudice and fear, there was a genuine joy because LGBTI people had found their voice and that voice was a song that could no longer be repressed. There is of course still a long way to go but how wonderful when one realises that one is no longer defined by victimhood or fear but by being who you really are and being that well.

Jesus tells his disciples to step out with courage, to step out in faith and hope. His disciples go forth to live out the story of Jesus. It will not be easy and he warns them of the dangers they will face- that they will be like lambs in the midst of wolves. But their strength comes from recognising their vulnerability and thus living the faith that is within them. The faith in the love they have seen and heard and which has transformed their lives.   The temptation will of course be if they trust in their own power or possessions. They must trust in God’s story. God’s call, his life and love in them. Consequently Jesus tells them to take nothing with them, no purse, no bag, no sandals. To trust only in God and to be messengers of peace. Neither should they be fearful of rejection- for their peace will stay with them. It is Christ’s message they carry- “Whoever listens to you listens to me, whoever rejects you rejects me.” They become bearers of Christ. They have a courage which is both within them and beyond them.

It is a radical call, this living Christ’s daring. We will often be tempted to fall back on what we can control or possess. The church itself often does not trust Christ’s call. It becomes a place of fear, judgement and control not the missionary church called to be a pilgrim people trusting in Christ’s radical call. How easy it is for Christians themselves to become territorial. The church has a long history of becoming defensive and repressive- grabbing and holding on to power and privilege rather than giving it away through faith in the one who calls us. Fear teaches us to possess control, manipulate but Jesus teaches a new freedom: “What would it cost if you were to gain the whole world” he says “but lose your immortal soul?”

The other day I was giving a very small grant from the charity Relief in Need to a person I know to be homeless and very poor. He thanked me but told me he no longer needed the money but that I should give it to someone whose need was greater than his. I was taken aback, in fact felt quite affronted- until I realised that I myself was disarmed and challenged by his lack of need. His courage to face his difficulties with such dignity and hope. He challenged my own fears in the same way that we are often challenged when we see someone facing life’s fears with courage and generosity.  I wonder if you can think of times when you have been moved by the goodness of someone. You will often find that it is when they are facing struggle and vulnerability yet with a graciousness that seems to come from within and yet beyond.

A final image: I wonder if any of you can remember the first time you ever rode a two wheel bicycle. When all your fear was saying no you will fall off, you will hurt yourself,  you cannot balance and your parents may have been steadying you and then suddenly you were off and felt the exhilaration and the freedom of a bird- Behind you could hear the shouts of parents but you were away-  for you had found faith’s daring. I wonder how we can find within us that same faith to live Christ’s call.